Are you listening to me? 10 Years of iPod
A common way of illustrating the power and genius of machine technology is by demonstrating how such technology, when in use, appears to re-calibrate spatial awareness. What does it do to our sense of being within the physical space around us? How does it virtualise space in screens, monitors, in audio, or stereoscopic 3D? Virtual Reality (which, in its imagined, sci-fi form remains by and large a complete fantasy) became instantly attractive because of the ideal of access to alternate universes; of being able to enter new dimensions and acquire new roles or abilities within those other realms. The principle of shaping a malleable identity is central to these concepts and movies like Tron and The Matrix stimulate our cultural fascination with this possibility.
However, virtual realities exist on somewhat smaller scales all around us and can easily be shown to pre-date computer technology in the form of role-playing scenarios, illusions and other practices by which we edited the physics, appearance and/or social rules of what we perceive as "nominal society" (which is in many ways, of course, equally "virtual") . Spatial awareness forms the basis of our engagement with many kinds of media, and before we even get to virtual realities where our active involvement is essential, there are numerous instances in which technology is able to project a space around us, tailored to the perceptual requirements of an individual audience who remains more or less passive.
"the possibility of carrying this imaginary personal stage or studio to anywhere we desire is a marvellous innovation"
Take stereo (and later, surround) sound, for instance. Better still, take the example of headphones. The cheapest headphones around, for use with some kind of portable music device like an iPod or a trusty Walkman. Crucially, the headphones (particularly today's stereo headphones) minimise and re-package any piece of music or other audio into sound with set spatial parameters - a phenomenon known as stereo imaging. Have you ever listened to a piece of music on your earphones and thought that the rhythm guitar sounded as though it was slightly to your right, the drums somewhere behind or below you, the lead vocalist above or in front of you, while the bass hovered powerfully to the lower left? That is as intimate a performance as you're likely to get from a recording, and the possibility of carrying this imaginary personal stage or studio to anywhere we desire is a marvellous innovation which embodies our obsession with music (and the setting of our lifestyles to music).
When rudimentary headphones were first invented, in or around 1910, they were intended (and for many decades remained) as products with an exclusively professional application. They were worn by sound engineers, radio technicians and telephone operators. They were tools for accessing content which was otherwise undetectable; invisible - that is, sound. Sound was like a material that had to be ordered, shunted from one cable to another, given more or less bass or treble, and then it could be sent on to the customer or client, to be listened to at its final destination point or broadcast via a loudspeaker into the open-air (where it immediately dissipated or was heard). Headphones, as technical instruments, were part of the production line; they were definitely not the end point.
However, the invention of stereo sound, and the increasing portability of audio equipment changed the role of headphones and they have experienced a meteoric rise in popularity so that they are now viewed as ubiquitous elements of Western-urban society. We all wear them - on the street, in public transport, at home, among friends and family - and are sometimes considered rude for doing so. But broadly speaking, we have adopted earphones and the experience of listening to music in almost any situation with gusto. That what is important here is precisely that ease of access to one's music is demonstrated by the imminent decline of the iPod in favour of the iPhone, which has effectively assimilated the iPod into the iPod app (identified by a little iPod logo) as well as countless other functions. So as the status quo of music listening changes, commentators and media voices are - as usual - prone to nostalgically wondering what life was like before we all suddenly started doing that which we were not demonstrably doing before.
The BBC has come up with a discussion on the presence of iPod earphones in public places and in doing so has fallen into all the traps which are set out for anyone wishing to comment on technology and its ability to "change" society.
First, there is the ponderous opening rhetorical question: "It's 10 years since the iPod was unveiled, but has the MP3 player turned us all into headphone-wearing, anti-social people?" Later a distorting news anecdote follows: "When British sailors were taken prisoner by the Iranians in 2007, Able Seaman Arthur Batchelor admitted he had "cried like a baby" after his iPod was confiscated by his captors. He was branded a national embarrassment by newspapers." And finally we close with the tongue-in-cheek conjecture that social change emanated somehow from the invention of a single device without any apparent contextual factors: "[Andreas] Pavel says he never set out to isolate people from the outside world when he made that first rudimentary personal stereo."
This last failure is particularly disappointing since immediately prior to this comment, Tom de Castella, author of the BBC article, had quoted Prof Michael Bull as commenting, "The actual presence of people next to you in the street is not recognised as social any more. We get our intimacy from nearby loved ones or people who are absent over chat sites and social media."
There is something in our society that has coaxed us into our feverish uptake of headphones and private listening experiences - it is not the headphones, like little metal sirens, which have drawn us fatally toward some kind of aural oblivion. As I noted above, the rich spatial quality of listening to music on the best modern headphones is, indeed, in technical terms often a welcome reprieve from the "white noise" of urban landscapes. Mixing and matching playlists on the underground or while riding a bus feels good largely because we know we have introduced the experience of our own personality, figured in the form of our music collection, into what is otherwise an inherently impersonal, utilitarian and public environment. The popularity of headphones has as much (if not more) to do with the (anti-)nature of city living as it has to do with the innovations of sound engineers and brands such as Apple Inc. whose promotion of particular product lines is startlingly successful.
There is another, more aesthetic, argument within all of this, proposed by commentators such as Jaron Lanier in his book You Are Not a Gadget or indeed culture theorist George Steiner in Bluebeard's Castle (in a passage regarding household hi-fi systems and the development of the record player) that the ready availability of music and the ability to stop and start it at will in almost any (practically sensible) situation somehow demeans its value as an art form - that by transferring access to a medium to individuals, that art form is somehow denuded, popularised, squashed into derivative copies that might be freely distributed rather than exhibited or orchestrated.
Personally, I have deep reservations about such a stance, seeing it as archaic and even elitist. The aesthetics of art have changed, certainly, but there is little we can do to alter that fact and it seems useless to bemoan it. I would agree, however, with someone who pointed out that excessive listening to the same songs or playlists simply as a means of escaping the boredom of a commute to work will quickly result in the transference of that boredom (with a sort of entropic inevitability) to those same songs and playlists. But listening to the same song over and over again would always, eventually, have worn thin. That has relatively little to do with what device you're using to listen to it.
If we are a race of people less openly communicative with one another in open public places (and I believe it is fair to say that that is often true), then we have reached that point not only because of singular devices like headphones and mobile telephones, but also because of a more general evolution in the way all technology affects our lives - particularly in urban areas. And that, that consummate reality, is responsible for the nature and character of the virtual realities which we all live by. Those "virtual spaces" (however we define them, wherever we identify them) are really echoes and re-fabrications of wider, effectively deprecated concepts of reality and they are now so common and fundamental to our lives as we live them that it is impossible to know where exactly to appropriate the word "virtual" at all. Rather, it feels increasingly like a misleading and redundant term.
All of this, however, is not to suggest that the appearance of any given technology does not produce change within society. Of course it does - I am simply arguing that the extent to which we attach that change to the arrival of particular objects is often distorted by a highly selective understanding of context. Inventions such as the radio, for example, have long been the subject of social historians who notice significant, indelible cultural shifts and attempt to explain them. When wirelesses were first brought onto the market in the 1920s, the common phrase by which people referred to the act of listening to them was "listening in" - an antiquated version of today's "tuning in". The original phrase encapsulates a notion of an almost voyeuristic experience and that in turn gestures at changes in people's understanding of public and private as well as an initial instinct to trust the radio as somehow human. Those changes, and their relationship to the radio, are discussed in this scholarly article by Timothy D. Taylor of Columbia University. Taylor concludes:
"Radio allowed Americans to maintain a premodern sense of unmediated relationships as it seemed to speak to listeners directly. While radio may seem to be a humble technology today compared to television in many real and important ways - bureaucratically, legally, and culturally - television is but a footnote to radio."
That experience of somehow being talked to directly by a voice coming out of a machine is not quite the same as listening to an iPod playlist. But the difference between the two mediums tells us a great deal about the character of modern culture as opposed to the Western cultures of the 1920s and 1930s. Essentially we have exchanged the position of being subject to a, for want of a better word, voice of authority, dictating to us and defining our listening experience, for the opportunity to choose for ourselves what we want to listen to - and where. To the person A listening to their iPod on the opposite seat from person B in the train, their listening experience is completely separate, and may likely jar entirely with person B's, but these two individuals may exist side by side in the same locality. That is the realisation of the techno-democratic dream. It has many faults, given that individuality is something of a contemporary fallacy, but I will not delve into those problems here. In the first instance, we ought simply to marvel at the existence of this phenomenon of customized, personal entertainment in totally altered spatial dimensions because, really, it is unprecedented.
It remains, naturally, an ironic by-product that the opportunity for conversation between listener A and listener B on the train is utterly lost in the process of achieving this experience. Where that opportunity is unwanted, difficult to engage or of limited value, we have gladly traded it for an iPod playlist. Technology has not so much altered our opinions on the possibility of conversation with strangers, but helped us avoid our anxieties about that very prospect. For that, many might condemn the little white earbuds which unplug us from brief encounters on the train, but a majority will happily smile to themselves, close their eyes and hit 'shuffle'.
- Terrified Together: The Online Cult of Slender Man
- How We Started Calling Visual Metaphors “Skeuomorphs” and Why the Debate over Apple’s Interface Design is a Mess
- "The Wheel of the Devil": On Vine, gifs and the power of the loop
- Facebook, the Projected Self and Narcissism
- Self-Sacrifice in the Age of the Gadget
- The Quality of Offline and Online Friendships
- Lucidending: Empathy, Online
Interfaces express not that a journey has been eliminated, but that a new one may be created.
Networking, in many senses, gives rise to a new perspective on the London Riots of 2011.
Does abstinence from the web ever last? Is it even a good idea?
Computer viruses are not just computer viruses. They spread in pathological as well as technological ways.